The Central Governor: Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed?

The Central Governor Model is a theory of fatigue.

As runners, we know what fatigue is. It’s when it hurts, you’re over it, you want to go home, you have to walk, running sucks.

The term “fatigue” is commonly thrown around in the sporting world. But surprisingly, there is no concrete definition of it that scientists can all agree on. You can’t just look at fatigue under a microscope, and different people have varying relationships with fatigue.

So to understand the concept, researchers have developed multiple theories of fatigue. The Central Governor Theory is just one of them.

Before the Central Governor Theory was proposed by physiologist A.V. Hill in 1924 (1), the idea that running fatigue had anything to do with the brain was completely out of the question. And even then, the Central Governor Theory has been heavily scrutinised by the scientific community.

In this article, we are going to dive into:

  • The distinction between peripheral fatigue and central fatigue
  • An explanation of the Central Governor Model
  • How you can push at your mental limits with physical training
  • The Central Governor Model’s effects on pacing
  • 3 ways you can hack your running using the Central Govenor Model
  • 2 challenges to the Central Governor Model

Ready to learn more about your amazing brain?

Let’s get into it!

The Central Governor Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed

peripheral fatigue vs central fatigue

Since the 1890s, fatigue had been the domain of muscles.

When Italian physiologist Angelo Mosso published his findings in La Fatica (Fatigue) in 1891 (2) he established the traditional model for fatigue termed peripheral fatigue.

Peripheral fatigue states that the muscle itself is the cause of fatigue. For example, when you’re running, your quads begin to “burn” and fatigue. This fatigue is due to a buildup of acidity within the muscle which in turn slows the runner down, potentially to a stop.

In other words, Peripheral Fatigue states that the physiological changes that result in fatigue are isolated to specific, local muscle motor factors (3).

The Central Governor Model opposes Peripheral Fatigue and states that it is not the muscles that cause fatigue, but the brain.

the central governor model explained

The central governor model states that the brain is the body’s control room and its safety mechanism, and therefore the brain is ultimately in charge of the body’s ability during exercise.

The Central Governor Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed 2

According to the theory, the brain constantly monitors the body during exercise so that we don’t hurt ourselves. It keeps the body in check, not allowing it to deviate too far from homeostasis (balance).

If the brain senses that the exercise is getting to a level that is potentially dangerous- running too far, too fast, on too little fuel– the brain acts to decrease the intensity level of the exercise.

In the Peripheral Fatigue model the reason for a runner’s quads to be “burning” is directly a cause of physiological factors, namely a build-up of acidity within the muscle caused by running. However, according to the Central Governor Model, this “burn” is a result of the brain reducing muscle fiber recruitment of the quads (4).

When physiologist A.V. Hill initially proposed the Central Governor Model, he theorised that the heart was not entirely responsible for its own functioning, and that instead, it was protected by some sort of governor, potentially from the nervous system (5).

Since Hill’s rudimentary theory, the Central Governor Model has been refined. More recently psychologist Tim Noakes et al. have theorised the Central Governor Model as:

“Exercise performance is regulated by the central nervous system specifically to
ensure that catastrophic physiological failure does not occur during normal
exercise in humans.”

Tim Noakes (6)
The Central Governor Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed 3

“The subconscious brain sets the exercise intensity by determining the number of motor units that are activated and hence the mass of skeletal muscle that is recruited
throughout the exercise bout.”

Pettersen (7)

An example of the Central Governor Model in action is the long-distance classic: the finish line sprint.

At mile 16 of a marathon, a runner can be all out of gas. They hit the wall. The thought of going a second faster than a walk is out of the question. However, they soldier on, chipping away until the finish line is in sight. And miraculously, 400 meters from the finish line they hit an all-out sprint!

What has happened here according to the Central Governor Model is that the brain has realised that 400 meters from the end, there is no risk involved in picking up the pace, so it opens up biological pathways and allows the body to run faster.

is it all mind over matter?

It is common for people to hear about the Central Governor Model and to assume that because your brain is in control and not your muscles, that means that you can simply will yourself to run faster or farther by turning off the Central Governor. This is not the case.

The Central Governor Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed 4

Racing is a combination of three important components: emotional, physical, and mental.

You can’t just hijack the central governor. And even if you could turn off the central governor, the physical fitness of an athlete is still a limiting factor.

For example, even without the influence of a central governor, a 4-hour marathon runner would probably die before they ran a 2-hour marathon. Their body just wouldn’t be able to supply the demand.

However, this four-hour marathoner can learn to push the boundaries of their central governor using mental training and visualisation techniques to tap into extra performance reserves.

pushing back at your mental limits with physical training

While you can’t completely turn off or overcome the central governor, you can train your mind to improve its ability to tolerate physical discomfort to prepare your mind for the physical demands you place on it while running.

One way in which our Central Governor regulates the body is by the experience of pain. When you’re in pain during a race, you tend to ease off. Great runners are able to better push through that pain.

The Central Governor Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed 5

Have you heard about the hand in ice water studies?

Studies (7) had athletes and non-athletes submerge their hands in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could. The athletes had a higher pain tolerance and were able to keep their hands submerged for much longer compared to non-athletes.

The theory is that the athletes had altered their relationship with pain. They were able to “push through” when the non-athletes could not.

Researchers concluded that the reason the athletes had a higher pain tolerance compared to non-athletes was that their training had impacted the way they withstood pain. The hours spent training in an uncomfortable or painful physical state had conditioned their brains to be able to tolerate more pain, and this skill transferred to areas outside of sport.

The Central Governor model suggests that the limits of human endurance are flexible. We always have reserves, our brain just withholds them from us.

But with physical training, we are able to push back at our psychological barriers.

“My unproven hypothesis is that in the case of a close finish, physiology does not determine who wins. Rather somewhere in the final section of the race, the brains of the second, and lower placed finishers, accept their respective finishing positions and no longer challenge for a higher finish.”

– Tim Noakes (8)
The Central Governor Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed 12

the central governor model’s effect on pacing

The idea that your brain ultimately controls how far and fast you go has big implications for the way we view pacing.

Pacing is one of the ways in which the brain regulates the body according to the Central Governor Model.

In other words, the brain “anticipates” all the known variables of a race or all-out run– the distance, topography, temperature, etc. – and it then calculates an optimal pace that will get you to cross the finish line without dying or seriously hurting yourself.

More scientifically speaking, according to research by Noakes et al.:

“The brain determines the number of active motor units based on a pacing
strategy that will allow completion of a task in the most efficient way while
maintaining internal homeostasis and a metabolic and physiological reserve
capacity.”

Tim Noakes (9)

When you deviate too far from your optimal physiological pace, your brain will react by restricting the level of muscle activation in order to slow the body down.

The Central Governor Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed 6

3 ways you can Hack Your Running Using The Central Governor Model

1. Don’t go off too fast too early.

By speeding off too fast at the beginning of a race, you trigger the central governor early. This means that the brain will trigger physiological changes to slow your body down so that you don’t hurt yourself.

Instead, don’t deviate too much from your original pacing strategy.

2. Use visualisation techniques

Careful here, you don’t want to be toeing the start line of a marathon or ultra blindly visualising an easy-breezy run. If you do that, you’ll be setting yourself up for failure. When your Central Governor kicks in (which it will), you’ll be more likely to give in to your brain’s experience of pain and give up, or slip far beneath your goal pace.

Instead, when you’re approaching a race, mentally put yourself in that moment in the race where it gets tough and visualise yourself pushing through it. By visualising yourself overcoming pain and fatigue, you will be better equipped to face the realities of the race.

The Central Governor Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed 7

3. Incorporate speed sessions into your training

As we saw in the ice water studies above, athletes have a higher pain tolerance due to their time spent in painful conditions in training.

Infamously, the most painful types of running training are speedwork sessions: hill sprints, fartlek workouts, interval sessions.

By incorporating these kinds of sessions into your training schedule you’ll be able to chip away at your mental constraints when it comes to pain.

Pro Tip: When you think you’re done and you just can’t do another rep, run a final rep at an all-out sprint. This is where you’ll bank the biggest reward for your mental toughness come race day.

2 Challenges to the Central Governor Model

As we spoke about at the beginning of this article, there is more than one model of fatigue and not everyone in the sports psychology world is on board with the Central Governor Theory. Here are some challenges to the theory:

The Central Governor Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed 8

1. There is a lack of evidence for it

According to Henriette van Praag, PhD, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, the Central Governor Model “lacks a clear structural/physiological basis within the central nervous system. Thus, empirical evidence for the existence of a ‘governor’ remains to be
established.”

2. It doesn’t take all factors into account

The Central Governor Model addresses one aspect of fatigue. However, in life, there are many limiting factors of running performance. Motivation and environmental issues for example (10).

Quotes From The Sporting Greats

Roger Bannister: “The great barrier is the mental hurdle.”

Derek Clayton: “The difference between my world record and many world class runners is mental fortitude. I ran believing in mind over matter.”

Vince Lombardi: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

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Bibliography

1. Noakes TD. Maximal oxygen uptake: “classical” versus “contemporary” viewpoints: a rebuttal. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1998 Sep;30(9):1381-98. doi: 10.1097/00005768-199809000-00007. PMID: 9741607.

2. Di Giulio C, Daniele F, Tipton CM. Angelo Mosso and muscular fatigue: 116 years after the first Congress of Physiologists: IUPS commemoration. Adv Physiol Educ. 2006 Jun;30(2):51-7. doi: 10.1152/advan.00041.2005. PMID: 16709733.

3. Kirkendall DT. Mechanisms of peripheral fatigue. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1990 Aug;22(4):444-9. PMID: 2205780.

4. Noakes TD. Is it time to retire the A.V. Hill Model?: A rebuttal to the article by Professor Roy Shephard. Sports Med. 2011 Apr 1;41(4):263-77. doi: 10.2165/11583950-000000000-00000. PMID: 21425886.

5. Hill, A. V., Long, C. N. H. and Lupton, H. (1924). “Muscular exercise, lactic acid and the supply and utilisation of oxygen.” Parts I–III. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. 97, 438–475.

6. Noakes TD, St Clair Gibson A, Lambert EV. From catastrophe to complexity: a novel model of integrative central neural regulation of effort and fatigue during exercise in humans: summary and conclusions. Br J Sports Med. 2005;39(2):120-124. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2003.010330

7. Pettersen SD, Aslaksen PM, Pettersen SA. Pain Processing in Elite and High-Level Athletes Compared to Non-athletes. Front Psychol. 2020;11:1908. Published 2020 Jul 28. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01908

8. Noakes TD. Fatigue is a Brain-Derived Emotion that Regulates the Exercise Behavior to Ensure the Protection of Whole Body Homeostasis. Front Physiol. 2012;3:82. Published 2012 Apr 11. doi:10.3389/fphys.2012.00082

9. St Clair Gibson A, Noakes T D. “Evidence for complex system integration and dynamic neural regulation of skeletal muscle recruitment during exercise in humans.” Br J Sports Med 2004. 38797–806.806

10. Weir JP, Beck TW, Cramer JT, Housh TJ. Is fatigue all in your head? A critical review of the central governor model. Br J Sports Med. 2006 Jul;40(7):573-86; discussion 586. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2005.023028. PMID: 16799110; PMCID: PMC2564297.

Maria Andrews

Maria Andrews

Maria Andrews is a runner, adventure lover, and UESCA certified Ultramarathon Coach. When she's not running around the woods or plotting adventures, she's spending time with her nearest and dearest, cooking up a storm, or working on Marathon Handbook's sister website, yogajala.com 🙂

2 thoughts on “The Central Governor: Does Your Brain Manage Your Running Speed?”

  1. Thank you for this interesting read. Personally, I have found visualisation methods to be really beneficial and an integral part of preparation before a race.

    On a side note:
    “More recently psychologist Tim Noakes et al. have theorised the Central Governor Model as:”

    Dr Tim Noakes is primarily trained or qualified as a psychologist, if you have a look at his credentials here (http://www.essm.uct.ac.za/ESSM/Tim_Noakes):

    QUALIFICATIONS
    MBChB: 1974 – University of Cape Town
    MD: 1981 – Thesis title – “Exercise and the Heart”
    DSc: 2002 – Doctor of Science in Medicine degree in Exercise Science (UCT)
    PhD (h.c.): Vrije University, Amsterdam, Netherlands
    FACSM: Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine
    (hon) FFSEM (UK): Honorary Fellowship of the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine (UK)

    Reply

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